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COVID-19 outbreak threatens resources of local health agencies

  • Georgia Phillips, 76, a resident at Quabbin Valley Healthcare, is keeping a positive demeanor in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

  • Nancy Whitley, president of Barton’s Angels Home Health Care Services. STAFF PHOTO/ANDY CASTILLO

Staff Writer
Published: 3/23/2020 7:47:32 PM

As COVID-19 continues to spread throughout Massachusetts, long-term care facilities and home health care agencies are straining to stem the contagion by locking down facilities, connecting with patients remotely, reusing single-use equipment and testing everyone who walks through the door for symptoms.

“Everything is so fast-moving here,” said Michael Kachadoorian, assistant administrator at the Quabbin Valley Healthcare facility on Daniel Shays Highway in Athol. “We initiated a restriction on visitors (March 11) about three days before the mandate came down from the CDC, in anticipation that we would be moving that way anyway.”

For now, Kachadoorian said the Athol facility, which has no confirmed cases as of Monday, is meeting the needs of its 142 long-term residents and 45 rehabilitation patients with adequate protective equipment. But, as the outbreak continues to extend into Franklin County and the North Quabbin region — there were eight confirmed cases at Buckley HealthCare Center in Greenfield over the weekend — that could change. Even on an average day, Kachadoorian said caregivers often don full protective gear, much of which is not reusable, to treat patients with myriad illnesses.

“Every time we enter a patient’s room we have to don some type of precaution,” he said. “So it’s multiple times a day for just one person. … It’s not like (the equipment) is in a storeroom waiting to be used. We’re actively treating patients with other issues.”

Without containment, health officials across the country have warned the coronavirus could seriously deplete the resources of facilities, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to issue guidance on reusing single-use equipment.

But even with so great a need, Kachadoorian said he’s worried nursing homes and home health care agencies are “being left out of the equation. It seems like, and appropriately so, hospitals are the ones getting the donations.” In light of that and in addition to N95 respirators, which prevent caregivers from being infected, Kachadoorian noted his facility is actively seeking “gowns, gloves, surgical masks, booties, head bonnets. Anything like that would be very much appreciated — in addition to hand sanitizer.”

Poet’s Seat Health Care Center in Greenfield, which currently has 58 residents, is similarly raising the alarm.

“We definitely could use more (equipment),” said Michele Carney, the High Street facility’s administrator. “We have handed out to all our nursing staff the respirator mask. We will be in need of gowns, gloves” as well as “any long-sleeve gowns — we’re looking for johnnies or other things that could be washed and sanitized.”

In particular, Carney said that many contractors have N95 masks they use for other purposes. Donating them to an area nursing home “would be the best and kindest thing anyone could do,” she said.

Home health care

With depleting resources and changes in the way care is administered, home health care agencies also face an uphill challenge.

“I keep thinking of all the graduates. I hope we trained them well,” said Susan Pratt, director of the Tripp Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy organization for health care workers she started in 2001. Pratt’s organization operates the Giving Circle Thrift Shop in South Deerfield as a way to help meet the needs of home health care workers. She also hosts training events at Greenfield Community College.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on individual home care workers and agencies will be profound, according to Nancy Whitley, president of Northampton-based Barton’s Angels Home Healthcare Agency, which serves patients throughout the Pioneer Valley.

“People talk about hospitals and all the doctor’s offices that are closed but I haven’t heard anything about home health care,” Whitley said. “Prioritizing clients who need help with personal care — very physically oriented care we’re providing — is probably the greatest challenge we’re facing.”

To stop the coronavirus’ spread, Whitley said home care workers are taking precautions such as limiting contact with clients. For example, Barton’s Angels’ clients are asked to slip shopping lists beneath the front door. Caregivers, in turn, shop while wearing gloves and a mask, then return “the groceries with change and a receipt — making sure of social distancing,” Whitley said.

Another priority is obtaining equipment. Like long-term care facilities, the need for supplies among home healthcare agencies is dire.

“We don’t have N95 masks at all. We’re using masks that would ordinarily be considered disposable. We’re using them in anticipation that our masks will be exhausted,” Whitely said.

At the state level, Barbara Bodzin, executive director of LifePath, a Greenfield-based service agency (which is encountering similar challenges), said advocacy work is ongoing to alleviate the resource strain. In particular, Bodzin noted efforts being made through the Executive Office of Elder Affairs to leverage equipment for LifePath’s 30 vendor organizations, which provide services such as home health care.

“With the shortages, each one of them will run out if there are not supplies made available to them. There is advocacy happening now … to appeal for the needs of the home care network. Certainly, there are hospitals and (health care facilities) that are in dire need of equipment, but we need them as well,” Bodzin said.

To that end, a number of local community organizations have begun sewing reusable masks for area caregivers, including one in Bodzin’s hometown of Leverett. While not ideal, the CDC has noted that reusable handmade masks are better than nothing.

“I know there are great efforts being made by people hand-making face masks,” Bodzin said, noting there are templates and videos readily available online for those who might wish to contribute in that way. Notably, Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton recently issued a notice describing how to make homemade masks that are in line with CDC guidance. Already, Whitley noted one Barton’s Angels worker has received 100 homemade cloth masks from two contributors.

Along with caregivers, the toll on patients brought on by this evolving pandemic is multifaceted: with the movement restricted, many cannot exercise as they used to; the mental challenges are perhaps greater. Georgia Phillips, 76, a resident at Quabbin Valley Healthcare, said those who might have a relative who is isolated should check on them. Despite the challenges, Phillips said she is keeping a positive outlook.

“We’re safe here, and I’m happy about that. I’m glad I’m here,” Phillips said.

Meanwhile, local agencies like LifePath and nursing homes such as Poet’s Seat Health Care Center will continue to serve the community. As this pandemic unfolds, for the safety of everyone, Carney advised, “Stay home. If you are not a health care worker or a grocery store worker, stay home. Wash your hands and be aware that hospitals and doctors are very, very busy.”

How to make a mask

What you will need: Cotton fabric, rope elastic, beading cord elastic will work (you may also use 1/8-inch flat elastic). Cut the elastic 7 inches long and tie a knot at each end. You can make two sizes: adult or child. Instructions are as follows: 1. Put right sides of cotton fabric together and cut 9-by-6 inches for an adult mask or 7½-by-5 inches for a child’s mask. 2. Starting at the center of the bottom edge, sew to the first corner, stop. Sew the elastic with the edge out into the corner. A few stitches forward and back will hold this. 3. Sew to the next corner, stop, and bring the other end of the same elastic to the corner and sew a few stitches forward and back. 4. Now sew across that top of the mask to the next corner. Again, put an elastic with the edge out. 5. Sew to the next corner and sew in the other end of the same elastic. 6. Sew across the bottom leaving about 1½ to 2 inches open. Stop, cut the thread. Turn inside out. 7. Pin three tucks on each side of the mask. Make sure the tucks are the same direction. 8. Sew around the edge of the mask twice. Be sure any fabric design is placed horizontally. Directions can be found at freesewing.org/docs/patterns/fu and deaconess.com/How-to-make-a-Face-Mask.

To donate to Quabbin Valley Healthcare, call 978-249-3717 and request Melissa Wilber, director of nursing services. Similarly, Poet’s Seat Health Care Center can be reached at 413-774-6318. To make a donation to LifePath, call 413-773-5555, 978-544-2259 or 800-732-4636. For donations to Barton’s Angels, call 413-582-0220. Baystate Health is in need of personal protective equipment and is asking the community for donations, but it can’t accept hand-sewn masks at this point.

Andy Castillo can be reached at acastillo@recorder.com or
413-772-0261, ext. 276.

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